Washington D.C. Legal Industry Reform
Washington D.C. is ahead of the legal industry reform game, having made its first regulatory changes decades ago. Today, the District of Columbia is considering expanding these reform efforts even more. D.C. is one of the only East Coast jurisdictions to take the bold leap of re-envisioning its legal services market.
“The lack of adequate legal services for low- and moderate-income D.C. residents … continues to be a pervasive problem. … Though there is no single answer for addressing the access to justice crisis, it is crucially important to seek solutions.”
What Legal Industry Reforms Are Being Considered in D.C.?
Washington D.C. was the first U.S. jurisdiction to make regulatory changes to its legal industry. In 1991, it altered D.C. Bar Rule 5.4 to allow for partnerships between lawyers and nonlawyers. (Several criteria must be met, as well. For example, the sole purpose of these partnerships must be providing clients with legal services.)
While it took a few decades, states today are following suit and amending Rule 5.4 even further or eliminating it completely. The same may end up being true for D.C.
In January 2020, the D.C. Bar Global Legal Practice Committee asked for public comment regarding Rule 5.4. Since then, the Committee has held dozens of meetings, collected data, and worked with other jurisdictions to learn how they’re handling the fee sharing and law firm ownership issues that 5.4 regulates. If D.C. follows in Arizona’s or Utah’s footsteps, nonlawyer-owned law firms like Law on Call would be allowed to operate there in the coming years.
In addition to amending Rule 5.4, D.C. is also considering allowing nonlawyers to provide limited legal services.
When Will New Legal Reforms in Washington D.C. Be Implemented?
The Global Legal Practice Committee is actively researching how changes to Rule 5.4 would impact the district’s legal consumers, lawyers, and legal industry at large. Any recommendations from the Committee will be sent to the D.C. Bar Board of Governors. The Board will then decide if the recommendations should be passed along to the D.C. Court of Appeals for a decision.
At present, there is not a timeline indicating when any of the above actions may occur.
Why Is Legal Industry Reform in Washington D.C. Necessary?
The access to justice crisis persists across the U.S., and Washington D.C. is no exception. According to a 2019 report by the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, 1 in 6 D.C. residents live below the federal poverty line. This greatly impacts who in the District is able to receive civil legal help. As the report says, “The lack of adequate legal services for low- and moderate-income D.C. residents … continues to be a pervasive problem.”
The report continues, “Though there is no single answer for addressing the access to justice crisis, it is crucially important to seek solutions.”
Is D.C. the Only Jurisdiction Pursuing Legal Industry Reform?
No! At least a dozen states are considering legal industry reform and researching the access to justice gap.
In Arizona, legal industry reform is already implemented, and we’ve been approved to operate Law on Call as an Alternative Business Structure in the state. In Utah, legal reform takes the shape of the legal regulatory Sandbox, and Law on Call has been in operation there since Winter 2021.